New Heads of School Institute (Part II)

We are half-way through the Institute for New Heads of Schools.  (This is the second of two posts on this topic; the earlier post is here.)  I’ve been looking forward to the first session this morning, led by James P. Honan, senior lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  I’ve been an admirer of Jim’s for a long time; he is a great teacher and leader, including a lot of service on school boards and trusted advisor to heads of school (including BB&N and Dana Hall).

* Stewardship and Sustainability.  Jim’s session is on “Strategic Financial Management: Stewardship and Sustainability.”  Unlike the other sessions at the institute, Jim teaches his using the case method, and he’s a fine case teacher.  Every one of us as new heads has been asked by our boards, I suspect, to focus on “sustainability” and to take a hard look at the financial model of our respective schools.  Jim frames the session with a good, hard question: “what do you want your financial legacy to be once you leave as the CEO of the school?”  You want to have managed with strong controls and with sound compliance; to have aligned the resources well with the strategic priorities; and to be able to show that your management of financial resources led to the school being better by the end of your time there.  Most schools have their money in roughly four buckets: 1) general, 2) plant, 3) endowment, and 4) grants.  Most for-profits, Jim notes, have just one such bucket; the nature of the accounting in schools is different in this important way.  There are three types of money: 3) permanently restricted (e.g., many endowed funds); 2) temporarily restricted (e.g., grants and other “use-it-or-lose-it money”); and 3) unrestricted (within reason; the board can still constrain its usage somewhat, if needed).  Jim emphasized the importance for heads of institutions to be the “translator” of the financial issues related to the school for the community at large.  He cites to Herzlinger’s four questions that we (as leaders and trustees) should ask about the financials regularly: 1) are the organization’s goals consistent with its resources?; 2) are the sources and uses of resources matched?; 3) is there intergenerational equity?; and, 4) are present resources sustainable?  “High performing organizations aren’t just lucky,” Jim tells us.  Another good line: in education, “you can’t cut your way to prosperity.”

* Creating a Culture of Philanthropy.  The job of a head of any academic institution is, in part, about development, institutional advancement, fundraising — whatever we call it.  Our sessions on philanthropy, (led by Denise Martin of the Center for Early Education with Reveta Bowers), are focused on the people involved: staff in the development office, the alumni and other potential/actual donors, the faculty (who often ought to be more involved; I always liked talking with donors as a faculty member; I’m told it is rare that faculty are really involved in development in schools), the students (around whom everything needs to revolve).  The role of the head of school seems to vary a lot in terms of what role we play in fundraising.  I’ve always enjoyed this part of my job, especially as executive director of the Berkman Center, since I just thought about it as talking with smart people about work that I’m excited about.  I realize it can be hard work, but it’s rewarding and think it will be a great way to channel passion about the mission of the school.

* Trusting Relationship with the School’s Staff.  The executive director, Dallas Joseph, and board chair, Jeff Shields, of the National Business Officers Association (NBOA) came to talk about the importance of the business officer’s role in the success of a school.  I spoke at NBOA’s annual symposium a few years ago (about Born Digital), and I was highly impressed by the organization and its members.  So I’ve been looking forward to this session.  The speakers emphasized the importance of a trusting relationship between the head of school and the CFO/business officer.  That seems, of course, quite right.  It occurs to me that much of the messaging from this camp is about building trusting relationships with staff (and faculty and other constituencies) across the school, starting from the very beginning.  Simple and obvious, but worth focusing on.

* A First Year as Head of School.  Vince Watchorn, who just recently completed his first year as head of Providence Country Day, took us through his own experiences and teed up what one can expect in the first year.  The most important thing (and I agree with this, ex ante), he says, is to spend the first year devoted to observing, to listening, and to learning from what one takes in.  He talked also about helping to lead a conversation, to inspire other people to talk in public about big, important topics that may not have been discussed recently at the school.   He also talked very helpfully about the balance between the internal and external demands of the job.  It is crucial to balance the two, but achieving that balance is always a challenge — in the first year and throughout one’s time as head of school.  In Vince’s case, he toggled between an internal focus and an external focus during different periods during the year as a way to manage both demands.  Everything is connected, as in a complex system, Vince argues (which I also agree with; see Interop, which Urs Gasser and I just published.)  One nice nugget: in response to a question from my friend Zachary Lehman, new head at the Hill School (who is going to be completely amazing), Vince said that “the best new traditions are old traditions that have been forgotten.”

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